English Studies’ Anchorage, Flotilla

Bruce McComiskey begins his introduction to
English Studies: An
Introduction to the Discipline(s)
with a striking anecdote about the annual
Raft debate among scholars from various disciplines at Alabama-Birmingham.
The Raft debates start with a sinking-boat scenario. The main ship is in
crisis, and all of the passengers have hurried into lifeboats, saving just one
spot for a final survivor. The quandary, however, is that three
passengers remain on the sinking ship, and all of them are professors at UAB who
must vie with the others for the final seat on the life raft by making the most
persuasive arguments for their discipline. The arguments–a braid of
humor, deliberate provocation, and refutation, frame the event, which unfolds in
front of colleagues and students. Audience applause determines the winner.
The scenario, in effect, contributes a sense of urgency to an otherwise playful
(if viciously candid) cross-disciplinary interchange. A professor of public
health defeated McComiskey (who was representing English Studies) in 1999, but
the outcome was inevitably the result of disciplinary incoherence, a problem the
book sets out, following the early pages, to resolve: "What exactly is English
studies?" (2).

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